Today I had my sixth or so meeting with a very intelligent student of English, a visiting professor. He probably has more credentials to his name than anyone I’ve worked with. Soon an article he wrote—in English—will be published in an academic journal here. Amazing. How impressive that a reviewer selected it when this non-native speaker from Japan had written it totally on his own with no native-speaker edits. It means he has an excellent command of English and that his ideas are extremely noteworthy.
So why does he still want a tutor? Or English textbooks, when he knows more English vocabulary than many American college graduates?
The problem has three aspects: the professor’s ability to comprehend spoken English; to consistently speak easily-understood English; and his register—a fancy word linguists use to describe the different and limited range of words we use in various situations. It’s formal versus informal or academic versus day-to-day speech. That last category is what I’ll elaborate on here, since it’s something most people don’t consider in their own speech, let alone others’.
The professor knows obscure words like “partake” or “burdensome” but not their informal equivalents, like take “part in” for partake or, potentially, for “burdensome”(depending on the context), “awkward” or “a pain.” He would know “edit” but probably not “smooth out.” Often we can guess and learn new vocabulary like these from context, but for a non-native speaker taking in a lot of new words at once can be overwhelming.
This remarkable man knows much of the printed language, whether newspaper, novels or textbooks—formal English. Knowledge of the meaning of a word is refined through interactions; and without this: problems. Not only in social conversation, but in understanding the questions students may ask him when the prof occasionally lectures in English.
You see, American speakers, in the last several decades, have preferred informal words and idioms. That word idiom does not derive from idiotic. Nor does it exclusively mean strange expressions like, “Raining cats and dogs” or “pushed my buttons” or “back to square one.” http://www.idiomsite.com/ lists an interesting but non-comprehensive list of these colorful phrases that often stem from metaphors.
Other types of idioms occur in conversation incessantly. Native speakers use them automatically without knowing they fall under the label idiom. Hard to believe? I’ve learned such from monitoring my own language when speaking to the bright and wonderful people that I tutor or in the instances that I interpret (in English) others’ language to the Japanese or Chinese people who comprise most of my students.
You see, the term idioms includes what grammarians call “two-part verbs”—such as “take off” instead of “depart”—and also expressions few textbook of English teach. For instance, “walk her to school” means “escort her to school” or “pick out” means “select” or “choose.” Or “take part in” signifies (which actually has three parts!) participate. All words we commonly use day to day.
Nuances and contexts can also stir up a hornet’s nest—an idiom not listed on the list of colorful idioms I referred to above. And we’re always coming up with new phrases. Thirty years ago I never heard anyone speak of “pushing my buttons.” Now it’s mainstream, and habitual for some. Ten years from now it might fall out of use (oops! One more idiom, fall out of).
But back to nuances and contexts. Today my student (he’s so bright it feels strange to call him that) mentioned my offer of dinner (via e-mail), and I protested, “No, I only made a proposal.”
Now I feel silly about my protest. I feared he thought I intended to pay for his dinner or provide it, so I explained that I merely wrote some ideas for how our families could meet up together. While I speaking, I realized that it was a classic case. He’d mistaken the nuances of a word in a given context and I reacted too quickly. After the confusion was cleared up, he asked if the word “overture” would be suitable than your “offer.” No, wrong register.
Language. Complicated. Continually changing. It’s amazing that anyone ever becomes fluent in another language. Or, maybe we only become fluent in certain aspects. Perhaps, to learn another language well and comprehensively, you need a tutor, a good friend or loverñand even one of these will not always be enough.